You expect games between the second- and third-place teams in the standings to be exciting affairs. Saturday’s game between Juventus and Lazio ... was not an exciting affair.
Both teams had played on Wednesday in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals, Juve against Atalanta and Lazio against Milan. The Bianconeri ground out a 1-0 result to win the tie 2-0 on aggregate, but the capital club probably came off the worse for wear. They missed several chances and a scoreless draw saw them forced all the way to penalty kicks, where they squandered a shootout lead and fell in sudden death.
One of the main storylines of the day revolved around revenge. The Biancocelesti had managed to beat Juve twice this year, once in the Supercoppa Italiana when they cancelled out a late comeback with a last-minute goal and the other a comeback win at the Allianz Stadium in October that made them the first visitors to get three points in Turin since August of 2015. The race for the scudetto and the Champions League places also loomed large over the Stadio Olimpico. Lazio was looking to fend off two teams that could drop them out of the top four given the opportunity, while Juve looked to keep pace with Napoli at the top with the Partenopei facing a tough two-week stretch of games.
After an incredibly drab game it was Juve who managed to get the better of the clash with a goal at the death, winning 1-0 on Paulo Dybala’s fantastic last-minute strike and taking control of the title race in the process.
Apart from the midweek game, Massimiliano Allegri’s team was being ground down by injuries. Gonzalo Higuain remained unavailable after suffering an ankle injury in the Derby della Mole two weeks ago. Federico Bernardeschi is suffering from a knee injury that may require surgery. Juan Cuadrado is still recovering from an operation to repair a sports hernia, while at the other end of the field a muscle injury was still keeping Mattia De Sciglio on the shelf.
With a major selection crunch up front, Allergi decided to shift away from the 4-3-3 that has been a staple since December and brought back an old staple: the 3-5-2. Gianluigi Buffon was screened in goal by Andrea Barzagli, Medhi Benatia, and Daniele Rugani. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi manned the middle of the park. The wing-back spots were a blast from the past, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah taking up the places they manned under Antonio Conte. Mario Mandzukic shook off a training-ground knock to join Dybala, who made his first since returning from his January hamstring injury, up front.
Simone Inzaghi was dealing with some of his own selection issues at wing-back. Adam Marusic was suspended for the day, while Dusan Basta and Martin Caceres were stranded in the trainer’s room. That handed a rare start to Jordan Lukaku. Thomas Strakosha had a 3-5-1-1 in front of him, with Stefan De Vrij, Stefan Radu, and Luiz Felipe forming the back three and Lucas Leiva, Marco Parolo, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic the midfield. Lukaku was joined by Senad Lulic at the wing spots, while Luis Alberto played in the hole behind Ciro Immobile.
Juve started the game on the front foot, although Lazio pressed hard to limit their passing lanes and time on the ball. Six minutes in Matuidi fed Dybala in the box, only to see the Argentine go down under a hard challenge by Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian really didn’t make any play on the ball as he bodied the striker away, but referee Luca Banti didn’t look twice at what seemed a fairly easy penalty call. Three minutes later, Mandzukic got on the end of a good free kick delivery from Pjanic but lofted his header over. After just over a quarter of an hour, Asamoah received a long diagonal ball and fizzed a cross past Strakosha, but there wasn’t anyone at the back post for the tap-in.
At that point Lazio began to push back, and eventually took over for most of the rest of the half. Alberto latched onto a deflected Lukaku cross in the 19th minute and unleashed a shot that Matuidi blocked for a corner. The Spaniard took the corner and was ready on the wing when the second ball was recycled back to him. His cross found Milinkovic-Savic rising for a strong header, but Buffon got down well to save. A few minutes later a Lazio counter saw Immobile find the target, but Buffon defended his near post and tipped it around. Alberto almost scored an Olimpico on the ensuing corner but Buffon was alert to it and knocked it out.
Juve’s ability to maintain possession waned as the half went on. Asamoah was guilty of a bad giveaway on the left side, but Lukaku wasted the chance once the ball was cycled to him, blasting his cross over for a goal kick. Juve did manage to present some threat at the other end, and a corner just before the half-hour saw Lukaku put the ball into his own net, but the goal was quickly disallowed for a foul in the box.
Things started getting chippy as the half wore on. Alberto clipped Lichtsteiner in the back of the leg to earn a yellow card, and Luiz Felipe earned a caution three minutes later after tripping Mandzukic from behind.
Lazio has killed Juve on counterattacks over the first two games they played, and in the 33rd minute very nearly had another one, but much like two weeks ago in the Derby, it was Rugani to the rescue. He positioned himself well and made an excellent challenge, dispossessing Immobile and snuffing out the threat. Two minutes later there was a scare of a different kind, as Buffon punched a cross and came together with Lulic, who crashed directly into the captain’s elbow. Fortunately it looked a lot worse than it ended up being, and after some treatment he remained on the field.
Juve managed a final threat of the half in the 38th minute, with Khedira latching onto the second ball on a corner and firing a shot that would likely have gone in had it not been deflected out. But before Banti could blow his whistle for halftime Lichsteiner went after a little payback, blasting Radu as they both chased after a loose ball and earning a booking.
By comparison with the first half, the second was largely devoid of action. Douglas Costa replaced Lichtsteiner as the team shifted toward more of a 4-3-3/3-4-3 look. Costa looked lively as always, but his teammates couldn’t make use of his pace and skill to get themselves into the right positions to score.
At this point, Dybala was having a rough match. Between his benchings in December and his two-month injury layoff he hasn’t played very many minutes over the last three months, and it showed. There was absolutely some rust on him. His passing and first-touch control were a bit ragged, and a particularly bad pass triggered another Lazio counter attempt, but Buffon was able to come out and met Immobile, clearing the ball out for a throw.
Just after the hour mark the Bianconeri may have gotten away with one. Benatia nailed Leiva in the penalty area, but Banti signaled for play to continue much the way he did when the Brazilian had knocked Dybala down earlier. Both incidents were worthy of being called, so I guess you can at least give Banti points for consistency.
Dybala continued to struggle to get into the game. He was often far deeper than he probably should have been, but he put in good effort in forcing a dispossession in a confrontation with Immobile, then was on the receiving end of a free kick routine, receiving a square ball outside the area and firing his shot way, way wide. It looked like he was expecting the delivery to go into the box rather than to him. He was growing into the game though, and a minute later, though, he burst through the middle and fired a shot that was blocked by Luiz Felipe.
Mandzukic had been isolated up front all game, and was replaced by Alex Sandro, whose role was...kinda nebulous to be honest. He was booked within moments, and actually spent more time on the right side of the field than his customary left. His introduction made things a little less defined in terms of shape as he tried to get something moving up top.
Lazio’s extra exertions on Wednesday began to show, and by the end of the game Juve had gained control of possession, but both teams still looked to be struggling to a drab scoreless draw. Then, with 30 seconds left in stoppage time, magic happened. It started with Dybala near the midfield line. The No. 10 dribbled around three midfielders before hitting Costa with the best pass of the night. Costa found Sandro heading into the right channel. Sandro looked for room and tried to cross, but it was blocked out toward the middle of the field by De Vrij. It was met by Rugani, who pushed up to keep the play going. His pass found Dybala, who nutmegged Felipe and surged into the box. He held off Parolo, and as the midfielder hauled him to the ground, he swung his leg and and lifted the ball past the despairing hand of Strakosha and into the net with Juve’s first shot on target of the entire match.
The goal triggered a massive outpouring of emotion. Dybala sprinted to the rail to celebrate with the traveling Juve support, and even Buffon sprinted the length of the field to join in. Dybala quickly made way for Giorgio Chiellini in the dying seconds, and after a few extra moments of stoppage time, Juventus had escaped with revenge — and three huge points.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. His save on Milinkovic-Savic was a lot trickier than it looked, and there were none of the lapses in judgement that have distressed people lately. Kept the team organized.
DANIELE RUGANI - 8. One of Rugani’s best games. Positioned perfectly every time he came up, dealt with quite a few balls into the box, tied for the team lead with five clearances, completed 94.4 percent of his passes, and kept one of the hottest goalscorers in Europe in his pocket, including coming in from the side to stop that counterattack in the first half. (Someone at WhoScored needs to explain to me why he didn’t get credit for a tackle on that play.) Some more minutes here, please.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7. Made a team-high six tackles and added to the defense that smothered Immobile and allowed only four shots the entire game.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6.5. A much better day than he had midweek, when he looked a bit ragged. Won three aerials, made three interceptions, and two tackles, but played with fire a little bit too much when he hit Leiva.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 4. Booked rather unnecessarily at the end of the first half and really inadequate on the right hand side. Only completed 36.4 percent of his passes. The time he could handle being a wingback rather than a straight fullback probably ended two seasons ago.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Better than recent performances but still not adequate. Was good defensively, with a pair of tackles and interceptions, but only completed 76.9 percent of his passes — a number that isn’t what it needs to be. Not contributing nearly enough to the attack for someone playing a box-to-box role.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made a pair of key passes, but spend a bit too much time having to defend and couldn’t stamp his creative spark on the game.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Completed a lot of passes—94.7 percent of them, to be precise. But he was oddly absent elsewhere, especially when it came to ball-winning, and his work to support the attack didn’t produce a ton of results.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 5.5. Did well to cover defensively, but similar to Matuidi didn’t have much of an impact going forward as the game bogged down.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Did well to defend some set pieces but was pretty isolated up front and couldn’t get his teammates into the game as a passing fulcrum the way he did against Atalanta midweek.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. The goal was huge, but the rest of the game was a struggle for the forward. He was just as isolated as Mandzukic, even though with his skill set he could do more about it dropping back toward midfield. It’s a matter of shaking of the rust for him.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. His added pace helped Juve gradually take control of the second half, but the attack was so discombobulated that is efforts didn’t yield a ton of results.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Still trying to get comfortable up front, and his position was kind of nebulous, but he made almost as much of a defensive contribution as some of the starters in only 19 minutes.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Inserted at the last second for time wasting and holding the line.
It was interesting to see Allegri revert to the old 3-5-2, but it also made sense. With so many forwards out, keeping Douglas Costa on the bench to maintain some in-game tactical flexibility was the right move.
The problem is that Allegri has never really figured out how to use the 3-5-2 to its full potential. Whenever he’s used it there hasn’t been as much creativity and flow within it as there was under Antonio Conte, who had the system down to a T. In general, the team’s passing was far too slow to get Lazio’s defense moving, which is a shame because if they had been able to wear down an already-exhausted team earlier things would likely not have been so tense by the end of the game.
The team is going to have to play a lot better if they want to progress against Tottenham on Wednesday. The good news is that Allegri said as much in his post-match press conference. Tottenham is not as good defensively as Lazio — or most Italian teams — and we’ll likely see a different approach to that game than we saw in this one. If not ... well, let’s not think about that right now.
Now all eyes focus on Wednesday’s match against Tottenham at Wembley Stadium. The hope will be for a far better performance than the squandered opportunity at the J Stadium three weeks ago. They’re fully capable of winning that game and the tie—but Allegri can’t afford the tactical mistake he made in the first leg, when he played right into Mauricio Pochettino’s hands.
As for Serie A, the Bianconeri now find themselves in control of proceedings. It’s not total control by any means, but they are in complete control of their destiny.
They were before, of course — down one point with a head-to-head still left you always are — but Roma’s win over Napoli has put them in the driver’s seat. If they win their game in hand they will vault into the league lead and put even more pressure on Napoli, who today proved once again they don’t have the mental fortitude to see a title run through to the end. If they drop more points next week against Inter, it’ll be icing on the cake.
Juve’s first step in the home stretch run will be back-to-back home games, against Udinese over the weekend and then the makeup game against Atalanta midweek. Win those two, and title No. 7 just might be in sight.